by Del Harvey
Cameron Crowe brings the 70’s back in a big way, and helps to launch a few budding actors’ careers in doing so.
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Director Cameron Crowe has given us Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Say Anything and Jerry Maquire. His latest, Almost Famous, is better than his earlier films and a positive look back at things fringed and far out. It is a fantasy, an allegory, an indication of the power in the flower. Well, it takes place in the 70’s, that groovy, hip, far out time when love was free and drugs were fun. As an extention of the overall attitude of peace, love and understanding, Crowe gets the feel and the people just right. But, then again, much of the basic premise actually happened to him.
Our hero is William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a bright young man whose mother (Frances McDormand—Fargo, Wonder Boys, Blood Simple) has put him forward a couple of years in school because he’s so darned smart. When his sister leaves domineering Mom and runs off to be a stewardess, she leaves behind a stack of records which will change William’s life. We skip ahead a few years to 1973, when William is the star reporter of his San Diego high school paper. He’s uncool, he’s quiet, he’s a kid. He meets his idol, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman—Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Flawless, Boogie Nights) and is given an assignment: get him 1000 words on Black Sabbath for Creem magazine.
Standing outside the stage door of the local music arena, William meets a few of the local groupies, including the captivating Penny Lane (Kate Hudson—Dr. T And The Women, 200 Cigarettes). She gets him into the auditorium and he bonds with opening act Stillwater’s lead guitarist, Russell (Billy Crudup—Jesus’ Son, Waking The Dead, The Hi-Lo Country). By the end of the evening’s performance, William and the band and the groupies are all old friends. Russell invites William to L.A. to see their next gig. And he insists that Penny come, too.
From there William’s journey becomes even more fantastic as he is offered an assignment by Rolling Stone magazine to tour with Stillwater. Into the rabbit hole goes our hero, feet first and heart open for any hint of affection from Penny Lane.
William Miller is an intriguing character. As written by Cameron Crowe, William is a sort of compilation of the 70’s teen, as well as an exaggerated version of his own youth. Patrick Fugit was selected from thousands of tapes sent in from a nationwide search. A virtual unknown, he is certain to become immensely popular after the exposure Almost Famous will bring. Fugit possesses a charm that shines down from the screen, imploring the viewer to trust him, to believe in him, and to take good care of him.
As the groupie-who’s-not-a-groupie, Kate Hudson is absolutely enchanting. Her smile has that quality that can weaken the knees of the most reticent of males. Her emotional range far surpasses that of many of her contemporaries, and even that of her mother (Goldie Hawn). Her acting has a seamless quality that does not reveal itself in the process. Ms. Hudson will go on to far greater things, if this performance is a true indication of her talents.
The buzz from Almost Famous has pegged Billy Crudup as the “next big thing.” He was superb, and charming, and sexy. But I felt as though his character played off of William’s, rather than being any sort of “breakout” opportunity. His Russell becomes first a big brother to William, then grows into a true friendship. Egged on by Mom (Frances McDormand), Russell seems to get the message that it is not too late to become human.
McDormand is an actress of considerable ability and, as usual, her estimable talent dominates the screen in her every scene. In a lesser talent, this would become a yawning predictability. In Ms. McDormand’s case it provides that excited spark that makes us sit up and unknowingly give an expectant smile.
The rest of the cast are mostly very good. Jason Lee (Dogma, Chasing Amy, Enemy Of The State) is equally as good as Crudup. He plays Jeff, Stillwater’s lead singer. Anna Paquin (The Piano, X-Men) and Fairuza Balk (American Perfekt, Gas Food Lodging, The Craft) are groupies and Penny’s best friends. Their appearances are too brief, but delightful as always.
The other outstanding performance is by Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs, whom William idolizes. Hoffman’s talent gives off a living aura. I was pleased when he was given the opportunity for a lead role in Flawless, in spite of it coming from Joel Schumacher. He can turn any role into an enjoyable experience, and is by far the best supporting actor working today. I hope he is given the opportunity to lead again, and very soon.
Cameron Crowe’s script and production capture the 70’s without relying on hackneyed cliches or plastic furniture. There is a quality to this film that bespeaks truth and invites the viewer to step back in time without much effort. The direction is very good, with one scene gliding smoothly into another without so much as a jolt—a difficult prospect for an ensemble piece.
The score, by Nancy Wilson (of late 70’s/early 80’s rock group Heart) is appropriate: the filler music easily blends with the nostalgic 70’s soundtrack. Cinematography by John Toll (Braveheart, The Thin Red Line, The Rainmaker) is also excellent, and brings to mind many memories of album covers of the period.
Almost Famous is one of the best films of the year. It may be an Oscar contender. Thanks to director Crowe’s execution, this is one trip down memory lane that’s worth the price of admission.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly and lives in Chicago. He is a survivor of Lucasfilm, The Walt Disney Company, and The Directors Guild Of America.
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